NYC’s Indo-Caribbean Community: the culture, the struggles and the contributions

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From the Holi or Phagwah celebration, known as the festival of colors, to the annual West Indian American Day Parade, to the tassa drums, elaborate traditional outfits, wedding celebrations and flavorful food like roti and curry – the rich culture of Indo-Caribbeans can be seen on streets all across NYC – especially in Queens.

The communities are made up of predominantly Guyanese and Trinidadians. According to the 2019 American Community Survey by the US Census Bureau, Guyanese-Americans are the fifth largest immigrant population in NYC, and second largest in Queens. Trinidadians are the 8th largest in the city, and 12th in Queens.

“The indo-Caribbean community really represents a twice migrant population in US and Queens,” said Professor Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian American Center at Queens College.

From India, they went to Caribbean countries, including Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica, in the 19th century to work as indentured workers, many migrating to the United States in the 1960s. Professor Khandelwal helped coin the term Indo-Caribbean in the 80s.

“A race like Indo-Caribbean, which is both Indian and Caribbean, falls between the cracks,” Khandelwal said.

Cultural identity continues to be a struggle, according to Anetta Seecharran, who’s been working with the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities for over 20 years. She says Queens neighborhoods, such as Richmond Hill, South Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park, have been grappling with getting basic services including job training, and counseling for domestic violence and mental health. But that’s not all.

Seecharran works as executive director of Chhaya, a  housing and economic justice organization that serves the south Asian and Indo Caribbean communities in Jackson Heights. 
She told PIX11’s Jennifer Bisram the community needs youth services, older adult services, domestic violence services, financial counseling services, and help for housing.

“We do not have a proper community center dedicated to the community,” she said.

Back in January, according to city health data, zip code 11419, which covers Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park had the highest COVID infection rate in all five-boroughs at 16.31 percent. Yet it was one of the last areas to get testing sites.

“We didn’t actually get the help we needed until much later in the pandemic when the statistics started to increase, until a lightbulb went off and they said wow look at the number of COVID infections there,” said NYC Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, who represents District 28, which includes Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.

Back in May, she pushed for the popular Lefferts Blvd and Liberty Avenue to be co-named Little Guyana. Mayor Bill de Blasio attended.

Still, like many immigrants groups, a portion of Indo-Caribbeans are undocumented.

De Blasio kicked off a $40 million campaign last year to get an accurate count in the 2020 Census – despite immigration status.

Mohamed Q. Amin led the Caribbean Counts campaign – to remind those hesitant to fill out census forms the importance of doing it.

“We shouldn’t have to leave our communities to have access to basic services,” he said.

The new 2020 census data, released in August, shows a surge in NYC’s population to 8.80 million from 8.17 million in 2010 – with Queens one of the counties with the most growth – nearly 8%.

Queens activists have been fighting for redistricting the overlapping Indo-Caribbean neighborhoods, which they say will help give them a united voice in government for funding and services they continue to fight for.

“We will continue to fight until we get the representation and resources we know we need,” Amin said.

PIX11 reached out to the mayor’s office asking what’s being done about community, youth and senior centers not just in Richmond Hill but in other Black and brown communities across NYC; we are waiting for an update. 

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